Ontario First Nation hires outside firm to investigate 28-year boil water advisory
Neskantaga has lived under a boil water advisory longer than any other First Nation
A northern Ontario First Nation that has lived under a boil-water advisory for nearly three decades has hired an outside consultant to find out once and for all what ails the community's water system.
Neskantaga First Nation, roughly 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., is marking a grim milestone this month — 28 years under a boil water advisory, longer than any other First Nation.
The federal government says the community's refurbished treatment plant is now producing clean water, but community members say they're still getting sick from what comes from their taps.
Chief Wayne Moonias told CBC News the community has hired S. Burnett and Associates Limited, a consulting firm based in Orangeville, Ont., to assess the state of Neskantaga's water treatment plant and distribution system starting next week.
He said the firm will conduct interviews with community members and current and former water plant operators to investigate delays and rising costs associated with upgrading the plant.
"Hopefully, we'll get some more answers," Moonias said.
"Our people often ask, when is this going to end? When are we actually going to get this thing resolved once and for all?"
The federal government allocated $8.8 million to upgrade Neskantaga's water treatment plant by 2018, but community members say they still don't have potable water.
Several contractors were hired to complete the work. The cost of the project doubled in 2020 to $16.5 million.
Moonias said the 400-plus members of his community continue to suffer. He said he believes the lack of clean water is contributing to the community's other challenges, such as its high suicide rate.
"It's shameful," Moonias said.
"We're being treated as second-class citizens in a country that's so rich, and we live in Third World conditions."
Moonias said the community's water causes scars and sores.
"We have people that are complaining that when they take a shower, they vomit," he said. "They have headaches. These are the constant reminders that we're still in a state of crisis."
More water tests scheduled for next week
Indigenous Services Canada is paying $200,000 for Neskantaga's investigation.
"It's unacceptable that people have had to live this long without drinking water that's potable, with worry and fear that the water that they're consuming is not safe for them and their children," said Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu.
"This has to be a key priority for our government and governments across the country."
Hajdu said the upgraded water plant is producing clean, safe drinking water, but Moonias said work on the plant is still incomplete and problems with the community's distribution system persist.
Hajdu said she will work with Neskantaga to make sure water is tested along the route to homes.
A capacity test is set for next week to see if the water system can handle Neskantaga's growing population.
"I committed to Neskantaga that I'll work with them intensively to try and ensure that the chief has the confidence to lift the boil water advisory," said Hajdu, who holds monthly meetings with Neskantaga's leadership.
"What we know right now is the plant is producing clean, safe drinking water, but community residents are still not comfortable with the safety as it reaches their homes."
Neskantaga is one of 29 First Nations still facing long-term drinking water advisories — something the Liberals promised to end by March 2021.
The decision to lift Neskantaga's advisory rests with Moonias. He said he couldn't predict when that might happen.
"I cannot give you a date," he said. "We're in a continued crisis."